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What’s a Jellicle cat?: ‘Cats’ plays at Pioneer


By Owen Bryant

When Broadway comes to Reno, you certainly shouldn’t expect anything less than spectacular. This season we have already seen some oldies-but-goodies like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and in the fall are some newer ones to come like the John Waters’ movie-turned-musical “Hairspray.” 

But currently, Reno has gone all out and landed a show that has enchanted audiences around the world for decades. And the reason why still remains a mystery.

Broadway veteran Andrew Lloyd Webber’s magical, musical extravaganza “Cats” is on stage through June 19 at the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts, and it is sure to intrigue anyone as curious as a cat.

This production is a bit scaled down from its original iteration, and that’s understandable considering it’s a touring production. The original show featured a custom-built rotating stage, and the makeup, costumes, and synth-heavy music were all cutting edge back when it made its debut in the early ‘80s. 

Forty years later, people still seem to love it.

“Cats” is based on a collection of children’s poems written by poet T.S. Eliot. The poems detail the lives and doings of the Jellicles—a tribe of junkyard cats who do a lot of singing and dancing – but never actually explain what makes a cat a Jellicle cat. Webber took the poems and set them to music in the late ‘70s and developed them into the musical we know today. 

While Webber can’t take all the credit for the whimsy, he and his creative team certainly solidified the aesthetic that makes “Cats” what it is: tabby-patterned leotards, big hair, leg warmers, excess flamboyance, and a whole lot of WTF.

For a show as beloved as “Cats” is, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Number one: what actually is the plot? If you rely on a story-driven show, “Cats” isn’t going to deliver. 

It does a great job of switching the mood up in each scene. But most of the scenes are expository. Each cat introduces him or herself and sings a song about who they are and what they do. Some are funny, some are sad. It’s all good fun. But there’s not much there to keep things interesting. There’s a vague overarching idea about how all the cats get together once a year to select one of their tribe to get “reborn” but that idea gets lost in the muddle of all the fur and frenzy.

Each musical number was entertaining on its own, and all of the performers were extremely talented. But back-to-back it felt a little tedious at times. The lack of story was compensated by an insane amount of dancing. And the dance was nonstop. 

When I saw the trainwreck 2019 film adaptation of “Cats,” I realized that this show can only be fully appreciated live on stage. You can see every character and every movement they do in real time and can appreciate the physical demands they each face.

As expected, a huge highlight of the show was the second act swan song, “Memory,” sung by Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Beautifully played by Portland, Oregon-native Tayler Harris, Grizabella is a downtrodden, rumpled, mangy former glamor queen, shunned by the rest of the Jellicle tribe. She’s probably the most recognized character from the show and the driving force behind the barely-there story, which is a shame, because a character of that depth and a performer of that talent definitely deserve more stage time. But that’s not how this show goes.

So many people love this show, and I do get it, but there is no denying that “Cats” is a confusing cocaine fever dream from the ‘80s. It does plenty to entertain, but it’s also pretty disjointed and weird. It doesn’t make much sense if you’re trying to find a story. 

You also have to be really comfortable with a bunch of half-human-half-feline horndogs shaking their junk in your face for two hours. It’s definitely an experience! And after all that I’m still not sure I know what a Jellicle cat is. But I appreciate it just the same.

More information on the Pioneer Center’s Broadway Comes to Reno series is here.

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